Carol Lay

The fate of the internet may very well be decided in Seattle. And it's not because of this city's renowned pool of high-tech talent. It's because two of the central players in a heated federal debate about the rules of engagement on the net—a debate that erupted on the floor of the U.S. House last week—hail from here.

One is U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-1), the liberal congressman who represents the turf just north of Seattle. The other is Bob Gogerty, partner in the high-powered Seattle political consulting firm Gogerty Stark Marriott, which represents clients like Vulcan, Boeing, and the Sonics—and, in this scrap, AT&T.

Inslee is one of four co-sponsors of an amendment to the omnibus telecom reform bill that would guarantee something internet geeks call "net neutrality." Net neutrality is the idea that no content provider should get preferential treatment from the telecom and cable companies, like AT&T, that deliver the web to users' homes. In other words, just because can pay more for internet service than, an anti-Wal-Mart website, they shouldn't be able to buy their way onto your computer faster. "We rely on internet providers to move bits, and all bits are created equal," Inslee says.

Inslee's main concern is that companies like AT&T will become "kings of content," allowing them to "cable-ize the industry," so that just as Comcast sells cable packages that promote certain shows to the exclusion of others, the big telcos will one day sell content packages that promote certain websites—effectively marginalizing other sites.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, the D.C. nonprofit that's fighting alongside Inslee for net neutrality, adds: "We don't want the Fortune 500 bits to become the dominant speech online. The very point of the internet is to diversify communication."

Opposite Inslee in the web wars is AT&T's consultant Gogerty Stark Marriott. According to Bob Gogerty, GSM did the "messaging and research" for AT&T, the telecom giant that has led the lobbying effort on Capitol Hill to sack net neutrality. The telecom industry spent $44 million on lobbying last year; AT&T accounted for $8 million of that. AT&T, the number-two all-time contributor to federal candidates, has already contributed $1.8 million in the 2006 election cycle.

GSM must have done a damn good job on "messaging." Inslee's amendment went down 252–169 last week, although a net-neutrality amendment is alive in the Senate version of the telecom bill. "We've got to get net neutrality locked into place," Inslee says.

The argument against net neutrality? Apparently GSM's message is about keeping the internet free of regulations. (As Gogerty puts it, "Congress should stay out of cyberspace.")

"Every other market has leveled according to market forces," says Karen Northon of Hands Off the Internet, an AT&T–funded D.C. group that fights net neutrality. "As with anything else, you pay what the market demands you pay. If you want a Lexus, you're not going to pay Ford prices."

Northon has a point about paying for what you get. The post office, for example, offers higher-paying customers express mail. Why shouldn't internet providers offer fancier net delivery for elite content providers like Google?

But Inslee's office explains that content providers already pay more for using more bits. However, they insist that once those bits are on the pipeline—a public utility—they shouldn't be stamped priority. Similarly, if you use more water, you pay a higher utility bill, but your water isn't going to rush out of the spigot while your neighbor's water trickles out.

A couple of other local players are also in the net-neutrality debate: and Microsoft. Both content providers are on Inslee's side. However, the word in congressional offices is that both companies have shown up too late to outmaneuver AT&T, which has "200 people in town." The Senate is taking up the issue this week.